This is a longer version (in several parts) of a review for the CollectiveEd working papers, curated and edited by Prof. Rachel Lofthouse at Leeds Beckett University, of Gert Biesta’s “Educational Research: An Unorthodox Introduction”.
In this post I want to look at the relationship between technical visions of teaching – the ‘what works’ approach – and the creation of conditions necessary for the development and maintenance of democracy. This is the underlying theme of Biesta’s book, and though he focuses on the distortions to research and knowledge engendered by the academic publishing system his concerns are based on ideas that equally apply to other professional activities, to schools and to teacher education.
Biesta argues that technical visions of professional action, and especially teaching, are a kind of invasion of and stake a claim over the ‘natural’, in that they make a claim that ‘this is how the world works’. Education is achieved through both the what and the how of teaching, and because of its intimate relationship with our democratic society – students are learning about the world through the way we work as much as what we teach. Technical visions thereby squeeze out the kind of deliberation and conflict that is the oxygen of a democratic society, which itself is not a ‘natural’ state of affairs, not an equilibrium to which human society will automatically oscillate through crisis towards.
Rather than present democracy as either a natural or an eternal category, Biesta is admirably clear that a desire for and achievement of democracy is based on values and culture, and that such values and culture need to be maintained and preserved. Our commitment to democracy should go therefore require us to go beyond ‘preferences’ and ‘choices’ in a marketplace of ideas, or the passing on of the wisdom and decisions of previous generations, and extend to the expression of and collective deliberation over values, wants and desires. In this way democratic professions provide important opportunities for practising and experiencing the wider dynamics of democracy, and an important contribution to processes in which society is democratised (113).
The final chapter considers how distortions promoted by systems designed to measure ‘impact’ of published educational research erode underpinning academic values of disinterestedness and cooperation by replacing these with competition. Rather than rely on open access journals to solve this problem, Biesta points out how these rely on a very similar model which itself places so much emphasis on the ‘impact’ of the finished ‘product’. This product is taken as a complete representation of the work of Academics. If you are not producing research then it is difficult to measure your ‘impact’ and therefore impossible to “show you are working”. Entirely consistently with the pragmatic approach the book challenges us much more carefully about the work of academics, so as to understand the totality of their practice, activities, production and use of tools. In considering the work of Latour and Woolgers from the 1970s he points out that, rather than only producing peer reviewed research, it becomes clear that such work is a part of a much larger process and set of activities which, because they are not measured, matter less.
When we consider this is the light of the effect of the relative strength of the various networks, that ensure that some ‘facts’ have more chance of promulgation than others, we can see how the themes of the book come together in this final chapter. This distortion has a wider effect than what counts as ‘fact’ in academic publishing, but “contributes to a particular articulation of that counts as rational and reasonable” (p142) in wider public discourse. Instead of seeing scientific knowledge as sacred and eternal descriptions of what is ‘out there’ and the only way in which we can hope to get in touch with reality or construct forms of intersubjectivity Biesta wants to argue that practical, religious, aesthetic and other dimensions are equally ‘real’.
The reduction to a technical scientific world view is responsible for a crisis in rationality, stripping the world of vital qualities which are part of the human experience and forcing us to choose between relativism or the “purchase of scientific title and authority at the expense of all that is distinctly human”. In particular this tends to restrict rationality to the use of ‘facts’ and excludes discussions of values and ends and their relationships with the means by which we achieve these. Rather than becoming sucked into a ‘reduction of options for thinking and doing’ (146), Biesta argues that we should be part of a ‘democratization’ of knowledge, especially if we aim to ‘enhance the scope for professional action’ (146) rather than describe ‘what works’.
We could perhaps make similar arguments about the technical vision of teaching presented by theories and approaches such as Synthetic Phonics, Cognitive Load Theory or Direct Instruction. These ideas are the latest in a continuing flow of ideas privileged by powerful sponsors, and they also crowd out discussion of purposes or ethics and, in the ways that they are enacted and enforced through accountability measures, restrict practitioners’ scope for action, and hedge the boundaries of professional reflection. My point here is not that these theories are good/bad or right/wrong, but in the way that they function in education. Similar revolutionary impacts were promised by formative assessment theories, and as enacted similar processes of sponsorship, enforcement and accountability occurred – anyone remember APP, and its descent into pupil friendly National Curriculum Levels?
In some ways the problems with previous revolutions are exacerbated by ideas such as CLT which promise a global united theory of learning and teaching. Much is made in the critical literature on constructivism of approaches to *teaching*, based on ‘activity’ or ‘enquiry’ or ‘discovery’, being a misapplication of various theories of *learning*. CLT is a theory self-declaredly about both teaching and learning – though over the years what the theory says about each has changed and developed. Each iteration of the theory is still ‘out there’ and can be picked through for approaches and mantras that support a particular view, or even world view. The Core Content Framework for Initial Teacher Education, for instance contains references only to some key CLT texts, and for the most limits its consideration and promotion of CLT to the core ideas of load reduction and the limits of working memory, some of which approach over-simplified pastiche.
In particular it fails (and I think these are a failing of the CCF) to consider serious critiques of CLT (de Jong, T. Cognitive load theory, educational research, and instructional design: some food for thought. Instr Sci 38, 105–134 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11251-009-9110-0) or even the epicycles such as the “expertise fading effect” which CLT’s proponents have had to introduce to deal with situations in which outcomes inconsistent with the underlying theory have emerged. The decision not to include Sweller, J., van Merriënboer, J.J.G. & Paas, F. Cognitive Architecture and Instructional Design: 20 Years Later. Educ Psychol Rev 31, 261–292 (2019) in the CCF reading list is a troubling one, given that this summarizes many of the important ‘exceptions to the rules’ that CLT is otherwise presented as in other papers.
What’s the problem with this limitation? It limits the approaches that teachers can take and the approaches that we have to take as teacher educators. The regulatory force of the CCF crowds out other approaches, and suppresses the nuance and questions that arise from these officially sponsored ideas. It has become a kind of 39 Articles that Initial Teacher Educators must promote. For instance, the treatment of knowledge, thinking and memory embedded in the CCF are flattening distortions of rich concepts and processes which trainee teachers need to instead to consider in the light of the traditions of their subject communities.
In presenting a flowing process between stimulus, short and long term memory, mediated only by processes of chunking, practice and adequately spaced and interleaved recall activity not only does CLT flatten out the processes of meaningful thought embedded in the school subject traditions (theorising, problem solving, evaluation, construction, development, transformation, examining, questioning), it also renders the humans involved as mechanisms, strangely passive – their individual and group histories contributing little beyond the capacities of their short term working memory.
Importantly for Biesta it also flattens the discussion central to this book of what education, and what education research is *for*, which I think also applies to teacher education, and CPD. Is education about improving ‘outcomes’ – what is measured, or does it have wider aims? If something is not ‘teachable’ or amenable to assessment, should it be learned in school? Is it learned in school anyway. Over the last 20 years policy documents have seemed to ignore the question of the purpose of schooling, or attempted in the first paragraphs to shut it down by reference to global competitiveness or the acquisition of’skills’ or ‘knowledge’ (powerful or otherwise). In the next post I want to consider Biesta’s opening up of this question.